Unsecured HTTPS cookies

Rejah Rehim
Published on
22 Apr 2024
7 min read

HTTP cookies are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored on a user’s device by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing. They are commonly used for various purposes such as session management, personalization, tracking, and authentication.

Cookies are also used to manage state, handle logins or simply to track you for advertising purposes and should be kept safe. The process involved in setting cookie are:

  • The server asks the user’s browser to set a cookie.

  • It gives a name, value and other parameters.

  • The browser stores the data in disk or memory. This depends on the cookie type.

Each request to the website sends the cookies along with the request. The major vulnerability with cookies is:

  • Cookies are not protocol specific. That is, a cookie set on the HTTPS website will also be accessible to the HTTP version.

  • Cookies can be accessed by JavaScript on the browser. So, if a hacker gets to run specific intrusion JavaScript on your website. Then your cookies can be read by the hacker. This can be done using XSS.

  • Cookies set by this server are without secure flags. This leads any HTTP link to the same server will result in the cookie being sent in clear text. The cookies may contain any sensitive information causing a high risk of vulnerability.

What are unsecured HTTP cookies?

Unsecured HTTP cookies refer to cookies that are transmitted over unencrypted connections.

When transmitted over HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) rather than HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure), the data contained within cookies is vulnerable to interception by malicious actors.

This means that sensitive information stored within cookies, such as user authentication tokens or session identifiers, could potentially be intercepted and exploited.

To enhance security and protect user privacy, it’s recommended to use HTTPS to encrypt the communication between the web server and the user’s browser. This ensures that cookies and other sensitive data are transmitted securely, reducing the risk of interception and unauthorized access.

What are the impacts of unsecured HTTP cookies?

The impacts of unsecured HTTP cookies can be significant, posing risks to both users and websites:

1. Data interception

Since HTTP cookies are transmitted in plaintext over the network, they can be intercepted by malicious actors. Attackers can use various techniques such as packet sniffing or man-in-the-middle attacks to intercept cookies and access sensitive information contained within them.

2. Session hijacking

Session cookies, which are used to maintain user sessions, are particularly vulnerable when transmitted over unsecured connections.

Attackers can steal session cookies and impersonate authenticated users, gaining unauthorized access to their accounts and potentially performing malicious actions on their behalf.

3. Data tampering

Attackers can modify the content of cookies while they are in transit. This can lead to various security vulnerabilities, such as Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks, where attackers inject malicious scripts into cookies to execute arbitrary code in the context of the user’s browser.

4. Privacy concerns

Unsecured HTTP cookies can contain sensitive information about users, such as login credentials, browsing history, or preferences. Unauthorized access to this data can compromise user privacy and may lead to identity theft, unauthorized tracking, or targeted advertising without user consent.

5. Compliance violations

In many jurisdictions, regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) impose strict requirements on the protection of user data.

Failure to secure HTTP cookies adequately may result in non-compliance with these regulations, leading to legal consequences and financial penalties for the website owner.

6. Trust and reputation damage

Security breaches resulting from unsecured HTTP cookies can damage the trust and reputation of websites among users. Users may lose confidence in the website’s ability to protect their data, leading to decreased user engagement, loss of customers, and negative publicity.

To mitigate these risks, it’s essential for website owners to implement secure practices such as using HTTPS to encrypt communication, employing secure cookie attributes (such as Secure and Http Only flags), and regularly auditing and updating their security measures to address emerging threats.

How can you prevent transmission of unsecured HTTP cookies?

Preventing the transmission of unsecured HTTP cookies involves implementing security measures to ensure that cookies are transmitted over encrypted connections and are protected from interception and tampering. Here are some steps to prevent unsecured HTTP cookies:

1. Use HTTPS

Implement SSL/TLS encryption by using HTTPS instead of HTTP for your website. HTTPS encrypts the communication between the web server and the user’s browser, ensuring that data, including cookies, is transmitted securely.

Obtain an SSL certificate from a trusted certificate authority (CA) and configure your web server to use HTTPS.

Set secure attributes for cookies to enhance their security. These attributes include the Secure flag, which ensures that cookies are only transmitted over secure HTTPS connections, and the HttpOnly flag, which prevents cookies from being accessed by client-side scripts, reducing the risk of XSS attacks.

3. Secure authentication

Implement secure authentication mechanisms to protect session cookies from being hijacked. Use strong and unique session identifiers, employ multi-factor authentication where appropriate, and regularly validate user sessions to detect and prevent unauthorized access.

4. HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)

Enable HSTS on your web server to enforce the use of HTTPS for all communication with your website.

HSTS instructs web browsers to always use secure HTTPS connections when interacting with your site, mitigating the risk of downgrade attacks and preventing users from accessing your site over unencrypted HTTP.

5. Content Security Policy (CSP)

Implement CSP to mitigate the risk of XSS attacks and data tampering.

CSP allows you to define a whitelist of trusted sources for content such as scripts, stylesheets, and images, reducing the likelihood of malicious scripts being injected into your web pages and cookies.

6. Regular security audits

Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments to identify and remediate security vulnerabilities in your web application, including potential risks related to unsecured HTTP cookies.

Test your website for common security flaws such as XSS, CSRF, and session fixation vulnerabilities.

7. Stay informed

Keep abreast of security best practices and emerging threats in web security. Follow industry standards and guidelines such as those provided by OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) and continuously update your security measures to address new and evolving threats.

By implementing these measures, you can significantly reduce the risk of unsecured HTTP cookies and enhance the overall security of your website and the privacy of your users.

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Written by
Rejah Rehim
Rejah Rehim
Co-founder, Director
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